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Hardy Agave

Plant of the Week

Hardy Agave
Latin: Agave parryi

Picture of an agave
Parry’s century plant is the most-cold hardy of the Agaves growing in the American southwest.

In the last decade, gardeners have seen an influx of new plants from all over the world. Some of these even arrived from our own desert southwest, an area often overlooked by gardeners. But, as water becomes more scarce and gardeners become more environmentally conscious, it makes sense to look at plants such as Agave parryi and see if they will fit into a workable garden scheme outside of their natural range.

The agaves include about 200 species of rosette-forming New World succulents with about 25 found in the United States. They belong to the agave family and go by the general name of "Century Plant" because they were thought to require about a century to bloom. Most species though bloom more quickly, usually in 10 to 15 years from seed. However, they have a "monocarpic" blooming habit. When an agave rosette flowers, it dies.

A. parryi is native to the border region between west Texas and central Arizona and adjacent areas of Mexico. Plants typically form 18-inch tall rosettes that grow to 24 inches across. The glaucous blue-gray leaves are ascending to erect, well-armed with upturned spines on the leaf margin and a truly intimidating half-inch long terminal spine. This species suckers freely and usually has several "pups" around its base.

Parry’s agave is slow to flower, especially in colder climates. But, when it does bloom, it produces a 15-foot tall spike with a series of flattened panicles spaced near the end of the stout stem.

This agave was named after the man who first collected it in our desert southwest, Charles Parry (1823-1890). Parry was an indefatigable botanist who collected extensively throughout botanically unexplored sections of the American west. Between 1849 and 1852, Parry was appointed botanist for the American Boundary Survey that marked the present day border between the U.S. and Mexico.

Parry trained as a medical doctor but his real interest was botany. He lived in Davenport, Iowa, but each summer he left for the western states where he collected from Kansas to California. Colorado was a favorite spot for him, and because of his efforts five of that state’s 13,000-foot peaks bear the names of botanists. One peak, Mt. Eva, was named for his wife who accompanied him on his summer-long plant hunts.

In 1869, Parry was named botanist for the newly formed U.S. Department of Agriculture. But he was a field man who had little patience for bureaucratic red tape or paperwork, so he resigned and returned to Iowa in 1871. Parry was not a detail man, so he did not do a lot of technical publishing of his own work. Instead, he collected plants and provided ideas to botanists like Asa Gray, John Torrey and George Englemann, the botanist for Henry Shaw’s famous garden in St. Louis, who named the agave in his honor in 1873. More than 60 plant species were named for Parry or, in a few cases, by him.

Today, botanists recognize four subspecies of this plant. One, A. parryi subsp. neomexacana from New Mexico, was a primary food source for the Mescalero Apaches who baked the heart of the rosette for a sweet, sticky staple to their diets. The Mescalero band was named after their name for the plant.

Agave parryi is cold hardy to zero, but to survive in the eastern states, it must be planted in an area with excellent drainage. Dry soils during the winter months are especially important. It should be grown in full sun, preferably in a south-facing site, with neutral to alkaline soils. It’s best suited as a specimen in a rock garden or raised bed.

By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - March 14, 2008

 

The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.